December in Louisiana is quite a bit chillier than one might expect and, as press gather behind director Scott Hicks as he sets up an outdoor scene for The Lucky One, everyone is thankful for the portable heaters that line the perimeter of the frame.
Although Nicholas Sparks' 2008 novel takes place primarily in North Carolina, the film has shifted the focus to Louisiana and is currently shooting in and around a welcome center in Covington (not far from New Orleans). The outside serves as a farmer's market visited by Taylor Schilling's Beth Clayton and Blythe Danner's Nana. Covered in pumpkins, colored leaves and other signs of suburban fall, the area also features a Marine recruitment table that connects the peaceful scene to Iraq, where the story begins for Zac Efron's US Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault. Returning to Colorado after a third tour of duty, Logan sets out on a walk across America to find the woman pictured on his lucky charm, a photograph he found in the middle eastern desert.
"I think there's nothing as extreme as being out there in a war," Efron says of his character. "Coming home, he's forced to sort of rediscover his life or whatever. What's next? He's on his own to find out what ultimately makes him happy and what he wants to do. I think it's very different from taking orders and being with your brothers constantly and fighting a war and then trying to live your life after and find love."
"I thought it was a story with a wonderful premise," adds Hicks. "The idea that somebody finding something at random in such an unlikely place that it would end up changing their life and the life of several other people. I thought it was a really strong premise for a story that felt inherently visual as well."
Efron's approach to taking on the role of a marine may surprise fans that know him best from projects like "High School Musical." To realistically capture his character's physical look, Efron packed on quite a bit of muscle and underwent actual military training.
"Physically I started eating a lot," he explains. "Eating through walls. Just eating and eating. That's all I'd do and I put on some weight that way. As far as the training goes, just trying different techniques and methods and working with a guy who I met who trained Vanessa [Hudgens] during 'Sucker Punch'... It's one of the only concrete things that you can do to feel differently about a character. I didn't feel like a Marine. I didn't have the posture. I didn't feel like I had the presence and that was just one thing for me that I could do to really up that change."
"It's been an important part of that process for him," says Hicks, "finding that sort of game face that he has for the role. This is a character that's been through a bit of trauma. He's traumatized by his experience. This is not just Zac playing himself. He really has undertaken a character unlike anything of his own experience, so it's a big acting step for him."
In addition to the physical changes, it was important for Efron to get into the mindset of an actual Marine. To that end, a fair amount of his pre-production work was spent Camp Pendleton.
"When I went in to meet some of these guys, the sergeants, I was blown away," says the actor, "I was taller than most of the guys, but they were just thick, like there was something about them. They had a definite presence. Here I am, slouched over and I just smile a lot. I'm just always smiling. These guys were [always serious]. Honestly, it was one of the most awkward moments in my entire life. Essentially, they know you're there to observe them. It's sort of just an awkward position to be in. But after about two hours, the guys really opened up and just started to talk more freely about what it's like. I definitely felt like I was inside, seeing the side of these guys that normal people really don't get to see."
"We met with a group of sergeants who were 23 years old, Zac's age," Hicks continues. "They'd done two or three tours of Iraq, Afganistan, some were going back... I know Zac feels very strongly that it's important to respect the real experience people have. We're telling a story about them. It should honor what people do properly. And in my own instinct as also a documentary filmmaker is to cleave close to reality where I can."
Discussions with the marines didn't just fill the broad strokes of playing Logan. Efron also borrowed a few minor-but-specific details, including the decision to give his character a tattoo.
"Pretty much all the Marines you see have tattoos," he laughs. "And when we talked to the guys at Pendleton, they all talked about. It was hilarious and all of them were like, 'Hey, what's your mistake tattoo?' They all had various ones. One guy had a sick scorpion up his arm. They all had cool tattoos on their arms and forearms and stuff. One of the guys had a barbed wire around and I was like, 'What's that one for?' And he goes, 'Oh, this one? This one's real special. That's my mistake tattoo. That's the one that you get when you get out of basic training and you're real gung-ho.' I was laughing so hard. I was like, 'Dude, we gotta have a mistake tattoo."
Oddly enough, while playing an Iraq war vet was new to Efron, it's old hat to his co-star, Taylor Schilling. Though she plays a civilian in "The Lucky One," she's best known for her role as a former military nurse on the recent television series "Mercy."
"I saw Taylor on her show," says Danner of her on-screen granddaughter, "and I immediately said, 'That girl has got something.' I asked my agent, 'Is there any opportunity to get me on that show?' Because I just thought she was so good. Even in this, I found myself just getting lost in who she was, she was so good. I did a film with Gwyneth [Paltrow] early on, a TV miniseries, and there was one moment where I looked at her and said, 'Who is this girl?' and realized, 'Oh my god. That's my daughter.' She had internalized that character so well that I had just lost track of who she was. With Taylor, she has a real magic on camera and a wonderful sense of what's real."
"For 'Mercy' I shadowed and talked to a lot of military people or people in hospitals," Schilling explains, "For this, the work was a little more internal in terms of processing the script and processing the character. Having it sort of filter through."
"Taylor was just a revelation to me," says Hicks, "because you start the process of looking at actors and she was the very first person that read for me for Beth. I just said to the casting director, 'Well, that's done!" But then you go through a process. You look at a lot of people and listen to a lot of people. I just kept gravitating back to Taylor. She has an extraordinary immediacy about her as an actress. You just believe what she's saying."
"[Taylor] came in and was so professional and just so good," Efron recalls of first meeting the actress. "...I just remembered she was doing so many cool, subtle things that I was just fascinated with. So I was like, 'I already love her. I don't know how anybody else couldn't.' It made sense. She totally deserved it at this point. So I was blown away with her."
"The thing is, honestly, I didn't know much of anything about Zac before I got this because I had never seen those 'High School Musical' movies," laughs Schilling, "At this point, really, I can't wait to see them when we're done, because I can't wait to see what he did before... I really got to know Zac when I tested for this film with him. He was just such an incredibly charming, down-to-Earth guy for me coming in. Me, who had never done a studio film before. He made me so comfortable at that test and was so generous and so wonderful and was also so interested in the work. He was so engaged in the scene and was so good. Just so good. So talented. It's just been so wonderful to work with someone that I feel really has my back as a scene partner. There's some really vulnerable stuff in this movie."
The scene today has Schilling and Danner's characters trying to live their normal lives on the one-year anniversary of the loss of someone very close to them, who lost his life in Iraq.
"She tries to be tough in a way," says Danner of Schilling's Beth. "She's got things to do. She's got a business to run."
"They've been dealing with it because he was one of the biggest supports in their life," adds Schilling. "He died a year ago. They're sort of going their separate ways, trying to deal with the feelings that are coming up today. Beth's trying to deal with it on her own. She doesn't quite make it through the end of the day."
All the actors also share the spotlight with a four-legged co-star, Rowdy. Perhaps best known for being voiced by James Marsden in Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Rowdy plays a bit more down-to-earth a canine in The Lucky One, traveling with Logan on his long walk.
"He's like the best actor I've ever worked with by far," smiles Efron. "He follows exactly the exact orders. Everything you wanted to do. It's amazing... I was not prepared to see this level of training the dog. He sits, he lays down, he knows the basics. But then they get into the weird stuff where it's like, 'Alright, point your head this way!' and he looks. Then it's like, 'Eyes here!' and they can move his eyes in a specific direction."
"I'm supposed to run with the dog a lot and I've been tripping over them," laughs Schilling. "Other than that, they're fine. Maybe that should have been part of my research, learning how to have a better relationship with these dogs. They sometimes just overpower me. We were filming by the creek and one of them pulled me off the scaffolding and I fell completely in the water right in front of everyone. Later that day, we were filming the scene where I was supposed to be running and I just fell completely over all the dogs."
The actors also had the chance to meet and interact with the original novel's author, Nicholas Sparks, who came to visit the set with his family and who, according the actors, left feeling positive about the way the adaptation is shaping up and very much approved of the change to a Louisiana setting. After all, the diversity of the state allows for the production to also tackle Logan's brief Iraq scenes and his trip on foot from Colorado.
"It's an emblematic sort of journey," Efron says, "It rides on a literal sort of following him beat by beat down a certain route. It's more of somebody undertaking a journey than is about finding where they belong. So it's not a literal road trip, but there's something where each of the images has to be powerfully evocative of the idea of taking yourself on a walk like that."
Also starring Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart and Adam Lefevre, The Lucky One hits theaters on April 20th.